How To Write a Pandemic Play

Friday 1st January 2021

The socially distanced audience in Blindness. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Ten prompts for writing about the year 2020.

1) “It started with a slight cough, a rather dry cough.” Explore the sense of a beginning; remember how you felt when the news of the pandemic gradually began to intrude into our minds. Travel back in time: what were the emotions? What thoughts took shape?

2) “I’ve never been so bored in all my life.” Writing about waiting has a long and honourable history, but feelings of boredom present a real challenge to writers. After all, you don’t want to bore your audience. So how can you make a sense of stasis interesting? Is it time to re-read Beckett?

3) “A third of people have no symptoms.” The notion of a hidden contagion, a disease which spreads invisibly, is a powerful metaphor. Consider the idea of an insidious contamination, whether biological, ecological or moral, and how would that play out?

4) “It’s one rule for us and another for them.” Discuss the myth of collective citizenship — we are all in this together — in the context of news about how the rich and privileged are able to break the rules with impunity. Where is the drama in popular anger and resentment against injustice?

5) “I can’t breathe.” Investigate the metaphorical power of a respiratory disease being linked to acts of police brutality. Made a note of the many ways in which a social movement can take direct action despite the constraints of a pandemic. How can you dramatize this?

6) “I haven’t had sex for months.” Examine the state of involuntary chastity. Imagine afresh the erotic potential of the internet, of the digital world, with the addition of the scent of hand sanitizer, Chanel no 19. How can desire at a distance retain its resonance?

7) “My doctor didn’t believe me — he thought it was all in my mind.” Think about the many cases of long COVID, where symptoms persist and recur months after the original infection. What other situations involve a trauma, and then scepticism about how long it takes to get over it?

8) “The cavalry are coming.” Philosophise on the workings of hope and the development of a vaccine, the feeling of a possible ending to a whole way of life. Compare the present to one, or more, possible futures. Does hope have less power than fear? Is optimism less compelling than pessimism?

9) “And the people tore off the hated masks and threw them onto a huge bonfire.” Imagine a world in which the population emerges from the dystopian darkness of a nightmare. Role play the profession of an archivist; when the end comes, notice all the feelings of joy and renewal.

10) “What a year it’s been!” Speculate on the power of memory, how some things are remembered and others forgotten. Can you be nostalgic about your own life? About recent bad times as well as good times? Has this been a year like no other? Don’t be afraid of sentimentality or strong emotions.

© Aleks Sierz

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